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May 28, 2014

Asylum seeker lifeboats fail safety standards, says regulator

The independent maritime safety regulator has confirmed that the lifeboats used to force asylum seekers back to Indonesia fail safety standards.


The lifeboats being used by Operation Sovereign Borders do not comply with Safety of Life at Sea Convention, the government’s independent maritime safety agency has admitted to a Senate estimates hearing.

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority, appearing before the Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Committee estimates hearings yesterday, was quizzed by Labor Senator Stephen Conroy about the safety of the orange lifeboats the government’s Operation Sovereign Borders has purchased for placing asylum seekers in for return to Indonesia. One of AMSA’s tasks is to “monitor compliance by Australian flag ships and their operators with the International Safety Management (ISM) Code under the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) Convention”, including certification of Australian vessels. Chapter III of SOLAS covers requirements for lifeboats, including how they are launched.

Conroy has previously established that AMSA had undertaken no work to ensure that the Customs and navy vessels involved in OSB had the cranes required to safely launch the lifeboats without damage, rather than, in the words of Liberal Senator Bill Heffernan, be “chucked overboard”. The lifeboats have been used to send asylum seekers back to Indonesia from outside Indonesia’s territorial waters, meaning a journey of at least 12 nautical miles, although Australian vessels have “inadvertently” entered Indonesian waters numerous times over December and January. One of the lifeboats was reported to have run aground on a reef some distance from land.

The means of launching the lifeboats “doesn’t comply with SOLAS”, AMSA deputy CEO Mick Kinley told Conroy yesterday evening after prolonged attempts to avoid answering, admitting the OSB vessels didn’t have the necessary equipment.

The admission was partly as a consequence of Defence Minister David Johnston failing to pay attention during the hearing. He spent much of the exchange away from the table in conversation elsewhere in the room, before belatedly realising what was happening. Johnston then aggressively — in his seemingly standard mode of high dudgeon — intervened unsuccessfully to attempt to stop any further discussion.

Kinley insisted the lifeboats, because they weren’t deemed as lifesaving equipment, didn’t need to meet SOLAS requirements for lifeboats or be registered with AMSA, but he had assumed the orange lifeboats purchased by Customs as part of OSB were SOLAS-compliant. However, he admitted stripping lifeboats of equipment such as buckets, knives and fishing line, as Customs had done, would render the vessels “non-compliant” with SOLAS.

Kinley tried to play down the removal of items like fishing lines, suggesting there was little need for asylum seekers to use them. “There are things I’d rather have than a bucket,” Kinley said, noting that the lifeboats were designed to be able to fill up with water and still float. “I’m sure there’s many other things you’d rather have if you were floating about in an indoor pool in an orange tent at sea, but a whole range of safety equipment has been removed.”

“I don’t see that it’s relevant,” Kinley said about the removal of safety equipment.

The exchange stands in significant contrast to the point-blank refusal of Customs head Mike Pezzullo, who earlier in the week in another committee hearing refused to discuss anything to do with the lifeboats into which asylum seekers are being forced.


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